The Secret Lives of Dentists

(2003) *** R
103 min. distributer. Director: Alan Rudolph. Cast: Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Gianna Beleno.

Alan Rudolph has been celebrated--and much maligned--for his idiosyncratic style. A Robert Altman disciple, Rudolph favors a loose, improvisational approach with each actor wired for sound and a lack of reverence for the script. But Rudolph's new film--instigated by actor-producer Campbell Scott (Big Night, Roger Dodger)--challenged Rudolph to color inside the lines of a script Scott had vowed to protect.

The resulting film--The Secret Lives of Dentists--takes off from Jane Smiley's best-selling 1977 novella The Age of Grief, and Rudolph's acquiescence to the script pays off. Screenwriter Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion) cut his teeth with stageplays like Prelude to a Kiss, so it's no surprise that The Secret Lives of Dentists hums with lucid and incisive dialogue, like one middle-aged character's observation "Remember when a year seemed like a long time?". Rudolph takes Lucas's penchant for magic realism as an invitation to do his own job: giving visual representation to the protagonist's spiralling neuroses.

Scott plays David Hurst, half of a husband-wife dental team. Their professional partnership is harmonious, if business-like. So is their marriage, until David, with his boisterous daughters waiting in the car, spots his wife Dana (Hope Davis) kissing someone else. As David stews in his own juices, he conjures up his most nightmarish patient (Denis Leary) as a sounding board.

David's internalized reaction to his wife's affair credibly withholds the emotional payoff most films would immediately release. Though the device of David's splintered imagination has been overshadowed of late by films like Fight Club (which Leary's costume amusingly--but inappropriately--apes), Scott's performance convinces and tugs the heart, even as Leary's acid wit combats the easy pathos of romanticized tearjerkers. Hope Davis remarkably turns her apparently adulterous wife into a figure of supreme sympathy, despite the fact that her bid for happiness is selfish and reckless.

Rudolph's adherence to the script frees him to tell the story while playing in the margins. He pulls off some magical appearing and disappearing acts with Leary that, though a bit distracting, effectively put the viewer on edge. Rudolph also reminds us of his sensitive touch with actors, and his unhurried style suits the tongue-in-cheek domestic horror loping to an inevitable climactic turning point. When David instructs his children that moldy food is nature, "trying to break it all down," one can hear in the line Rudolph's own healthy respect for the chaos which radiates from existence and our own hearts.

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